Review from Litarena, London, England
Review by Patrick Mackeown, July 2008
His story is based around the life of a real historical figure called Sir Robert Hart.
Lloyd Lofthouse's book is beautiful in several ways. It has a bright cover, which is a composite of Chinese dragons and various symbols in the background. Then there is an arresting photograph of a sunset over a Chinese waterscape in the foreground. The combination is exotic, far-eastern and elegant. Mr Lofthouse has paid the same amount of attention to his research. He may have more expertise in these areas than most because he has studied journalism. But he is also married to a Chinese national. He has a house in China. (His wife is also an author.)
His story is based around the life of a real historical figure called Sir Robert Hart. And, although Robert Hart had a distinguished career as a civil servant in China, that is not what Lloyd's book is about. Lloyd's book is all about Robert's private life. And because Sir Robert went to war on several occasions, lived among a series of passionate women, and was familiar with pirates, mercenaries and emperors it's not difficult to see why Lloyd Lofthouse was prompted to write about him!
Now Lloyd really gets inside the man. Sir Robert is an Irish Catholic, not a good one, it's true. But most of what he thinks about is abstention. Whether or not Sir Robert has any success with the unrelenting task of appeasing his religious conscience I'll leave to you to judge. But Mr Lofthouse closely observes Robert's tireless struggle. Of course Robert's battle with himself isn't made any easier by the fact that he's in a completely alien culture, one which labels him a foreign devil. Perhaps the label isn't as misplaced as it might at first sound.
The way in which Lloyd brings Robert back to life is by recreating the sights, sounds and certain erotic experiences, of 19thC China. When the sound is one of gunfire, (and Robert is often shot at,) perhaps that's not too difficult. But when it's making the correct sounds in Mandarin Chinese that's not so easy. Both Lloyd and Sir Robert have done it. I shan't try to copy either of them in my book review.
When Mr Lofthouse is not getting inside Robert's mind he's watching Robert trying to get inside the Chinese mind. Initially Sir Robert doesn't understand much about China. But he comes to understand far more about the country and its people than any other westerner has ever done. He even built China's railway and her schools. And, even though Lloyd doesn't discuss Robert Hart's industrial achievements, we do know that Sir Robert used the time, when various people weren't trying to kill him, wisely.
And, with all that in mind, we now turn to the matter of what Lloyd Lofthouse's story is really about. It's about sex. But it's about sex of a kind most people are unfamiliar with. Robert is not familiar with it either and that's why he has so many problems with it. Now this might seem strange, but Sir Robert has too many beautiful, young women whose main purpose in life is to satisfy his every whim and the thought of his situation almost drives him mad. He flees from his house on at least one occasion. The thing is that Mr Lofthouse makes running away through the streets of a Chinese city in order to escape from a brood of lovely women sound like a perfectly reasonable thing to do! We also know from Sir Robert's experiences that the Chinese built their streets crookedly on purpose so that anyone running through them would get lost. So, whether it's dodging bullets, orienteering or just finding one of his own beds to sleep in at night, nothing comes easily to Robert.
Both I and my wife were engrossed in this book from its start to its end. I'd never read one like it. Nothing in this book was familiar to me. Mr Lofthouse doesn't say who edited his book. The job has been done excellently. On the subject of stylistic editing, there is one further opportunity to expand an instance of Robert's experience with his servant, Guan-jiah. The tale about Guan-jiah's first shopping trip is simply told in the fashion of a very short report, whereas it could have been made into a charming narrative anecdote in keeping with the rest of the story.
My Recommendations for this book: I'm happy to recommend this book to all readers of all ages without hesitation. Despite the fact that it does have some erotic subject matter, the acts of sex are not elaborated upon. They're mentioned. And they're introduced in a charming and endearing fashion. For that reason I would not be tempted to limit access to this book according to the age of the reader. I therefore give this book my most enthusiastic recommendation.